Language and The Climate Change Gamble: Trying to Stop a Term from being Invented

(January 26th, 2010)


While much has been made over the merit and/or morality (or lack of) in comparing Climate Change denial to Holocaust denial, I believe the use of this analogy was inevitable.

Until the term genocide was adopted by the international community, there wasn’t a universally recognized word to sum up the magnitude of this human crime. At a loss for terminology in the face of looming catastrophe, some have resorted to the only language so contemptible as to be worthy of comparison.

The purpose of this essay is neither to defend nor denounce the use of such language. While I would prefer those advocating for Climate Justice be more creative and careful in their wording, I understand the desperation in wanting to convey the gravity (and woeful absurdity) of the situation. The purpose of this essay is to examine what Climate Change denial could actually mean.

I wholeheartedly believe that the spread of Climate Change denial moves us closer to the day when a term will be invented to encapsulate the implications and consequences of willful inaction. If that day comes you can be sure that, as heinous as Holocaust denial is, this new term will be seen as far worse. To deny the Holocaust is to spit upon the suffering of millions before you. To deny Climate Change is to facilitate the suffering of millions to come.

As debate will nevertheless continue over whether to use words like denial, denialism, or denier in this context, there are no doubt individuals and groups who either deny human-induced Climate Change or want to convince others it is not a problem. From the fossil fuel industry funding contrary science to lobbyists who steer legislation away from real solutions to the politicians, pundits, and media personalities who openly call Climate Change a hoax, there are a wide range of people who fit perfectly with the term Climate Change deniers. It is when this term is applied to skeptics that it is most controversial.

While skepticism is certainly a virtue in the world of science, the term skeptic is applied rather loosely when defending against the charges of Climate Change denial. Furthermore, it is the weight skepticism carries in this particular situation that sets it up for this kind of scrutiny.

The warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is by nature a very conservative body, have been more than harsh. And whether or not you believe in human-induced Climate Change, the science behind the effects of glacier melt, rising sea levels, and global temperature increase is both politically neutral and personally horrifying.

If the IPCC is right and we do nothing, then we are in store for decades of disaster. Under such conditions, the only thing that separates skepticism from denial is how one chooses to act.

When the consequences for being wrong are this threatening, skeptics may wish to err on the side of caution. It is, however, when they choose to do nothing that they transition from skeptics to deniers. In a case this serious, SKEPTICISM + INACTION = DENIAL.

In light of such menacing potential consequences, to not err on the side of caution is to draw a line in the sand.  It is to gamble on being right. Likewise, it is to gamble being wrong. And it is this gamble that has earned such enmity.

It is this gamble that will define the word that will eventually have to be invented. From skeptics to conspiracy theorists, it is not the denial that will be the sin.  It’s the gamble.

Skeptical inaction will not be seen as an innocent mistake.  It will be seen as the most shameful gamble in human history.

So let’s take a look at that gamble. And more personally, I would like to address the rest of this piece directly to those who consider themselves in the camp of skeptics.

As most skeptics are not climate scientists, how many of you have made a concerted effort to take a long look at the scientific data and compare competing claims? Furthermore, how many of you have required no evidence at all to dismiss out of hand even the possibility that Climate Change is both real and human-induced?

Because, remember, this so-called skepticism is in the face of scientific consensus. It is simply irrefutable that the vast majority of climate scientists and scientific associations (not to mention governments and militaries) have endorsed the science.

Nevertheless, many are willing to turn their backs on all of this simply because someone they trust told them to. Sadly, almost never is that someone a climate scientist, nor does that someone offer the rebuttals of mainstream climate science. Disgustingly, such a stance is almost always couched alongside political ideology.

But in the end, it doesn’t really matter how you arrived at denial. What matters is the gamble. Even if you believe you have been convinced there is nothing to Climate Change, you must acknowledge what it is you are risking.

Think of it this way.  Magicians the world over have been able to convince people, at least for a short time, that the laws of gravity can be suspended. This of course doesn’t mean audience members are willing to go out after the show, say a few words of hocus pocus, and drive their family off a cliff.

And why?  Because we take the laws of physics seriously. Our casual reliance on the science that shapes our everyday lives is evidence that we take the work of our scientists seriously. In this case, however, you’re willing to believe that the vast majority of scientists in the world are either all reading the data wrong or in a big conspiracy together.  And you’re willing to believe this at the risk of driving the human family off a cliff.

Then again, what if I’m wrong? I, myself, am not a climate scientist and am making a gamble that Climate Change is real and human-induced. What is the gamble I am making in supporting measures to address the rise in greenhouse gases?

Many point to the extraordinary costs of tackling Climate Change. To which, I offer no objections. I would simply point to what we could be getting for our money.  Even if Climate Change were a hoax, what would be the consequences of policies aimed at reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (or below)?

Well, if we turn our economies over to truly safe and renewable energy sources, there would be less reliance on foreign oil and fewer wars over energy. By not burning as much fossil fuels, we would get less pollution, as well as cleaner water and soil. Less mining and deforestation would result in less displacement, pollution, and conflict over resources. All of which would save on energy, health, and military spending. Not only would we recoup our investment, but we would end up with a better environment to live in and better relationships with our neighbors.

These are consequences I am willing to gamble. What is it that you are willing to gamble?

I believe that many have been willing to accept the criticism for using Holocaust-related language to denounce Climate Change denial because they understand and want to make a statement about the scope of such a gamble.

From the plight of the indigenous in the Americas to the Middle Passage to the Armenians of the early 20th century to the victims of the Nazis to the recent slaughter in the Congo, we have come to shamefully accept figures like half a million, 1 million, 2 million, 6 million, 20 million.

Well, try 50 million. Try 100 million. Try 500 million. Try a billion. It is within the realm of possibility that all the mass murder of the last 1000 years won’t compare with the scenario if we do nothing.

Don’t take my word for it.  Every major military in the world, including the U.S. military, is preparing for the catastrophe of Climate Change. And whether you believe it or not, people are already experiencing the early effects.  People are being displaced. People are going hungry. People are watching their resources be stolen or dry up.

But you’re willing to gamble that they’re all wrong.  All the militaries are wrong.  All the governments are wrong.  All the scientists are wrong.  The people already experiencing this are wrong.  They’re all wrong, and you’re right.

ARE YOU SURE?

Are you willing to gamble billions of human lives on it?  Are you willing to gamble war and human suffering the world has never known?  Are you really that sure?

If it was your family on the front lines of climate catastrophe, you couldn’t afford to be wrong. Who knows? Maybe one day your family will be on the front lines, and you won’t be able to afford others being wrong. Are you willing to gamble other people’s families on it? Are you willing to gamble your own?

You have a choice. You can err on the side of caution.

Or you can gamble hell on earth.

What’s holding you back from simply erring on the side of caution? It’s not as if you’re being asked to send your children to war. We’re being asked to change our production and consumption habits to fit more in line with environmental justice and human survival, and in the process end up with a better world.

So, again, what’s holding you back?  Is it political ideology? Is it economic ideology? Is it religious ideology? If so, then what is that ideology worth? Is it pride? If so, what is pride worth? Whatever it is that is holding you back, you have to ask yourself if it is worth the gamble.

Then again, what if you’re right? Do you know what you get then?

You get business as usual. That’s right. In a world where billions are already hungry, sick, and oppressed from business as usual, you would rather have that than to err on the side of caution, reduce greenhouse gases, and create a more just and sustainable economy.

Make no mistake. I do not equate skepticism of Climate Change legislation with Climate Change denial.  I too am quite skeptical of many of the current proposals to address this problem. This, however, does not excuse inaction.  What we need are real solutions, not Wall Street schemes crafted by the worst contributors to Climate Change.

In fact, I believe some of these false solutions are simply another form of Climate Change denial. To take steps you know will not fix the problem is to act as if either the problem doesn’t exist or the victims don’t matter.

Acknowledging that these examples represent varying degrees of Climate Change denial, there may be different terms invented to shame those who were willing to make such a gamble. Until that time, you can be sure that other Holocaust-related terms like appeaser and collaborator will become more prevalent.

Again, the purpose of this essay is neither to defend nor denounce the use of such language. The purpose of this essay is to make you understand the gamble.

This is not a matter of personal folly. This is quite possibly the greatest challenge in human history. Inaction is to allow the consequences. It is to facilitate the consequences.

I’m not asking you to trust me. I’m asking you to look again, and at very least err on the side of caution.

I’m asking you to do this because it is the right thing to do. But for nothing more than your own self-interest (and maybe my own desperation), please understand that your gamble is also how you will be remembered.

If by chance you’re wrong and the laws of physics are as the consensus of scientists say they are, your name will forever be dishonored. There won’t be any scrambling to explain away or deny your inaction.  From those who were merely conflicted over whom to believe to those who scoffed in the face of worst-case scenarios, your legacy will be the same. Your crime will be the same. You will go down in history with a brand upon your life:

“Those who wagered humanity for business as usual.”